How the River Arts District accelerates Asheville’s appeal
Arts in N.C.
By Sam Boykin
Photography by Mike Belleme
Looking to settle down in a friendly, manageable city that offered a thriving arts community, clothing designer Pattiy Torno moved from New York City to Asheville in 1984. She arrived on a Sunday, and her first stop was a macrobiotic restaurant for dinner. “The gal I was sitting next to asked me where I was staying, and I told her I had no idea. She invited me to her place and I ended up staying a week. I thought, wow, these are really generous, open-hearted people. It was such a nice change from New York City. I knew I had picked the right place to move.”
The move turned out to be well-timed. Torno’s first lease at a 3,000-square-foot downtown loft on Lexington Avenue cost $300 a month. At the time, downtown Asheville was a “ghost town after 5 o’clock,” Torno says. But the location suited her clothing design business. Shipping products to Nordstrom and other customers across the U.S., her business peaked at about 15 employees. After five years, she felt burned out and ready for change. She sold her business and used the assets to buy and renovate a cluster of four old brick buildings along the French Broad River in a largely neglected part of Asheville, just southwest of downtown.
Today, this area is known as the River Arts District, or RAD, and its development is helping enhance Asheville’s reputation as an arts destination by supplementing the increasingly pricey central business district. It’s roughly a mile-long stretch where more than 200 artists occupy some 22 buildings, used for decades as tanneries, cotton mills and other industrial purposes. Many are covered with colorful graffiti produced by local and national artists. There are about 10 restaurants, a couple of breweries and retail shops, and about 368 apartments in the works. Over the last 30 years, through marketing, determination, and public and private investment, RAD has emerged as a top tourist destination. Growth trends suggest it will eventually merge with the booming downtown area, local officials say.
A big shift
When Torno arrived in Asheville, the city was already a haven for artists — the Southern Highland Craft Guild opened its headquarters in 1930 — and was attracting creative types and unconventional thinkers. Starting in the mid-1980s, Torno and other newcomers began buying and renting the old warehouses and factories along the French Broad River, a mile from downtown’s center. A former Standard Oil distribution center building that Torno bought in 1989 is now her Curve Studios and Garden business. She has rented out space in her other buildings to artists who turned them into studios.
Momentum started to build. By the early 1990s, a sizeable artists’ colony was developing in the scrappy little neighborhood, and residents formed the River District Artists organization. Folks like developer Bill Goacher acquired a number of properties and rented spaces to artists at affordable prices. One such artist was the late sculptor John Payne, who bought his building and launched The Wedge Studios. The three-story triangular building now houses a collection of painters, metal workers, potters and other artists, along with the popular Wedge Brewing Co., which opened in 2008.
The first Studio Stroll in 1994 attracted hundreds to the area as artists opened their workspaces to the public. But Torno was thinking bigger. As part of a city-sponsored committee, she helped convince artists and local political and business leaders to brand a one-mile stretch the River Arts District.
“It used to be that the Studio Strolls — just two weekends a year — were the only times people could get into the studios. But Asheville is a place that has visitors 365 days a year. We were missing a big opportunity. By 2008, my studio was open seven days a week and I had tripled my income.” While Studio Strolls still happen twice a year, many artists now keep their studios open from 9 to 5, which draws more visitors to the area on a regular basis.
Property values reflect Asheville’s change. Torno won’t say how much she initially invested in her property. But Cotton Mill Studios, located about a half-mile away and about 8,000 square feet on a half-acre lot, sold in July for $1.95 million. Texas developer James Lifshutz paid $2 million in 2016 for the Phil Mechanic building, a rundown, 20,000-square-foot building in the center of RAD. Built in 1928, the property appraised for $517,000 a decade earlier.
In 2006, the Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau launched a $1.5 million program to add signage directing visitors and residents to top destinations, including RAD. “This helped people find us, which created more reason for artists to stay open” Torno says. “RAD went through a real evolution, and it’s just incredible how it’s blossomed.”
Over the last decade, the county tourism authority’s annual budget has grown from $6 million in 2007-08 to $16.2 million this year. Credit for the growth includes the 2015 increase in hotel occupancy taxes from 4% to 6%, an agreement between Airbnb and Buncombe County to begin collecting room taxes, and increased tourism, says Marla Tambellini, the group’s vice president of marketing.
The district got its biggest boost when New Belgium Brewing opened a $140 million brewery across the river in 2016. “That has caused all kinds of interest in the area,” says Kit Cramer, president and CEO of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. “The brewery is one of the biggest projects Asheville has had, and they picked that site because of its proximity to RAD and the river. All those things came together to make that a perfect location for their expansion.” About 40,000 people toured the brewery during its first year, spokeswoman Susanne Hackett says.
Fort Collins, Colo.-based New Belgium’s interest in the site also convinced city officials to support major improvements around the entire River Arts corridor, says Asheville Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler. In June, the city council approved a $54 million plan to overhaul the district with new and expanded greenways, botanical gardens and trees, a boat ramp, community plaza, and improved roads and sidewalks. About 40% of the money is coming from state and federal sources, with the project scheduled to be completed in 2020.
The improvements will help attract more creative types as well as other businesses, Wisler says. “What you’re seeing now is more restaurants, breweries and retail,” she says. “We’re also seeing more people interested in building residences.” Developer Harry Pilos is building the $58 million RAD Lofts, with about 235 apartments and 18,000 square feet of retail space. City officials are reviewing plans for a 133-unit apartment complex with a restaurant and office space at the Carolina Coal and Ice building, established in 1912.
RAD’s continued growth and expansion gives Asheville another prime tourist destination that will eventually merge with the booming downtown area. It’s feared that commercial development may diminish RAD’s edgy, independent spirit, with rents too high for artists’ homes or studios.
Torno says that she has mixed feelings about the district’s changes. On one hand, more people are coming to the area, many drawn by outdoor outfitters and tubing companies opening along the river, which brings a new dynamic. “It’s causing a little bit of stress,” she says. “Before, because we were kind of hard to find, we got a very targeted customer base. They were really interested in art and had a reverence for it. Now we are starting to get more of the general public — including families with rowdy kids — which puts a strain on the business models that we currently employ. It remains to be seen if RAD can survive its own success.”
However, as a landlord, Torno says she couldn’t be happier with how RAD has evolved. “I have 10 artists who rent from me, and they’re able to make a living, hire more people, and grow their business. While you’ll hear some artists complain that they’re being priced out of the area, those are the same people who want studio space for $150 a month. That ship sailed a long time ago.”
Featured image of Pattiy Torno by Mike Belleme
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